writing craft

Making Every Word Count

The word "shameless"Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

For the last couple of years, I’ve been self-publishing almost all my work. I love the freedom and control that comes with self-publishing; you can mix and match genres, write books of almost any length, create covers you love, and enjoy the instant gratification of seeing your books hit the shelves immediately rather than having them sit for weeks or months in some publisher’s queue.

However, I’ve come to realize that self-publishing can lead to some bad habits.

When I was submitting to a publisher or to anthology, I almost always had limits on the word count. For short story collections, this was usually in the 3-5K word range. The erotic romance novellas I wrote for specific calls were usually restricted to 15K.

Keeping a story below a word count limit can be a tough job. I almost always have to shorten what I’ve written in order to meet the submission requirements. This takes discipline and effort, but the results usually reflect a higher level of craft. In contrast, a self-published book can be as wordy as you want. In fact, the longer the book, the more you can charge. This tends to encourage sloppiness. Why strive for conciseness when it’s actually against your financial best interests?

Of course, cutting the fat will ultimately improve the quality of a book, but the absence of a limit has a tendency to reduce motivation.

In the last couple of months, I’ve been writing to spec for a publisher who has a hard limit of 3000 words. Every story I’ve produced for them has exceeded this in the first draft. Hence, I’ve been forced to focus on strategies for reducing the length. I’ve been learning (or re-learning) how to make every word count. I thought I’d share some of these methods in this post.

1. Sacrifice setting to story

Anyone who’s read any of my work will have noticed that I give setting a good deal more attention than many authors. With almost everything I write, I have in mind some particular place and time, and I normally dedicate considerable effort to bringing the setting to life. The environment and mood almost always play a role in shaping the characters and their actions.

However, the story needs to come first. Hence, if I need to shorten a piece, I’ll start by looking at the descriptions of the surroundings. I consider how critical each detail really is, how much it contributes to the central narrative. Sentences or phrases which enhance the atmosphere but are not essential to moving the story forward are prime candidates for the cutting floor.

Here’s an example from a recent story:

First draft (50 words)

I tried not to stare as I clambered barefoot onto the bus that would take us from the steamy, crowded streets of Saigon to the Dalat highlands. My sandals stuffed into a plastic bag provided by the management, I peered at my ticket and tried to locate the corresponding seat.

Final draft (41 words)

I struggled not to stare as I shuffled barefoot down the aisle of the bus that would take us from the steamy, crowded streets of Saigon to the Dalat highlands. Peering at my ticket, I tried to locate the corresponding seat.

When I took one of these buses myself, I was fascinated by the process (which everyone except me understood) of carrying one’s shoes, but this detail really isn’t important to the story.

2. Use dialogue to replace description and action

Sometimes you can establish facts, as well as delineate characters, more succinctly using dialogue than description. Although I like to intersperse action and speech in my fictional conversations, sometimes the action can be condensed with if the word count is tight.

First draft (120 words)

“Here’s your coffee.” A decadent swirl of whipped cream decorated the cup Martin placed before me. Perched on top was a tiny milk-chocolate heart.

“That looks amazing. And fattening.”

“Not something you need to worry about, Ms. Jordan.” His hazel eyes glittered with mirth.

Todd appeared beside him. “And your muffin…” Melted butter dripped down the toasted surfaces of the two halves.

“I didn’t ask for butter,” I protested, a bit alarmed by all the calories in front of me.

“You can’t have a blueberry muffin without butter,” insisted the sandy-haired barista. “It’s illegal!”

We laughed together. “What the heck,” I said, surrendering to their charm. “I didn’t have any breakfast.” I dove into the feast they’d prepared for me.

Final draft (66 words)

“Here’s your coffee,” Martin announced. “I added some whipped cream.”

“That looks amazing. And fattening.”

“Not something you need to worry about, Ms. Jordan.”

“And your muffin, ma’am…” Todd presented a butter-soaked plate.

“Hey, I didn’t ask for butter!”

“You can’t have a blueberry muffin without butter,” insisted the sandy-haired barista. “It’s illegal!”

I surrendered to their charm. “What the heck. I didn’t have any breakfast.”

Dialogue is often shorter than description because you do not need to use full sentences. Also, you can convey emotion through word choice and punctuation, rather than describing things like tone of voice or expression.

This example also illustrates another dialogue-related technique, namely, dropping speech tags when the identity of the speaker is clear. However, you need to be careful when excising speech tags; you don’t want to confuse the reader.

3. Modify sentence structure to make it more compact

If you have complex, multi-clause sentences, you can sometimes save words by turning one clause into a modifier. My example under 1 also illustrates this strategy.

First draft (12)

I peered at my ticket and tried to locate the corresponding seat.

Final draft (11)

Peering at my ticket, I tried to locate the corresponding seat.

We’re only saving one word in this case, but in other situations, the benefits might be more significant. Besides, when you have a hard word count limit, every word counts!

Here’s another example:

First draft (20)

Though I’d been watching her like a hawk all evening, I somehow missed the instant when she shed her clothes.

Final draft (13)

Despite my almost constant scrutiny, I somehow missed the instant when she undressed.

4. Consider removing modifiers

Most of my first drafts have way too many adverbs. In some cases, I overdo the adjectives as well. If you’re trying to shorten a story, review all your descriptive words and consider how important each one is to your goals in the story. In particular, consider cases where you use multiple modifiers for the same noun or verb. You don’t want to take them all out; your tale will lose all its individuality and sparkle. Sometimes, though, cutting one or two adjectives or adverbs will heighten the effect of the ones that remain.

First draft (98)

The woman in the window seat to my right had more flesh than I’d usually find attractive, and most of it was on display. Her light, floral-patterned cotton sundress had spaghetti straps, one of which had slipped down over her smooth shoulder. Her massive, pillowy breasts shifted underneath the fabric, every time she moved. The short hem rode up to expose her big but surprisingly firm thighs. She was fair-haired with a peaches-and-cream complexion—her accent suggested she was a Brit. The delicate dress was thin enough, though, that I could make out darker patches surrounding her nipples.

Final draft (85)

The woman in the window seat to my right had more flesh than I’d usually find attractive, and most of it was on display. Her floral-patterned sundress had spaghetti straps, one of which had slipped down over her smooth shoulder. Her massive breasts shifted underneath the fabric, whenever she moved. The short hem exposed her surprisingly firm thighs. She was fair-haired with a peaches-and-cream complexion—her accent suggested she was a Brit. Through the thin dress, I could make out darker patches surrounding her nipples.

In this example, I considered cutting the adverb “usually”, but I decided it was necessary. I wanted to convey the fact that my narrator 1) is attracted to women but 2) is not usually attracted to big women.

Writing flashers is a great way to practice conciseness. What’s a flasher? A complete story in 200 words. ERWA pioneered flashers on its Storytime list decades ago. When I first joined ERWA, flashers were restricted to only 100 words!

Initially, I had great difficulty writing flashers. My approach was to write the story first, then use drastic surgery to cut it to the necessary length. This Procrustean effort rarely produced satisfying results. The story arc suffered; the action usually felt jerky or incomplete.

As I’ve matured as a writer, I’ve also found flashers have become easier (though they’re still an instructive challenge). My current technique is to imagine the story, then begin to write, watching the word count as I do. As I use up my allocation of words, I go back to modify the earlier sentences, using techniques like the ones I discuss in this post. Normally the first full draft will be over by 10-20 words, but it will capture the essence of the plot. Then I can review and further trim the text, without too much fear of compromising the narrative.

You can find lots of flashers in the Erotica Gallery section of the website. If you want to try your hand, consider subscribing to the Storytime list. Every Sunday you can submit up to three flashers for comments and critiques.

Here’s one of my favorites, to give you the idea.

Faded Plaid Flannel

By Lisabet Sarai

He’d left it behind when he moved out. Guess the old bathrobe became too ratty even for his casual tastes. She can’t look at it without seeing his wiry frame wrapped in the faded plaid flannel, crouched over his poetry at the kitchen table. Vodka on one side, smoldering cigarette on the other, close enough to touch, a million miles away.

She holds it to her face, breathing him in, sweat and tobacco, and underneath, that elusive musk that first hooked her. Addictive, intoxicating—in an instant she’s drunk with the astounding lust that first drew them together. Eyes closed, she relives their ecstatic frenzy, the clarity of pure connection. In bed they were one body, obscene and holy. She never cared what they did; every carnal act felt like a sacrament. The loss of him, of that glory, is a vast, black, aching wound in her chest.

He’d felt it, too. Inhaling her female perfume, he lost himself, drowned in her lushness. Scary. One reason— along with his wanderlust—that he’s gone.

Chemistry’s not the same as compatibility.

She stuffs the rag between her thighs. Eventually the flannel will smell only of her.

Why not join us next Sunday? You have nothing to lose except unnecessary words!

Playing with the Passive

Thou shalt not use the passive voice!

How often have you heard this commandment? Almost as often, I’d bet, as “Show, don’t tell”. However, like most things in life, it’s not that simple. The passive voice is a legitimate English construction. It is perfectly grammatical and exists for very good reasons.

I’ve found that many authors, and even editors, are confused about the passive voice. Recently I had an editor object to one of my sentences because she believed it was passive. The sentence had the form “she had spoken to her friend before departing”. This is not a passive sentence but the editor apparently thought it was, presumably because it includes a so-called helping verb (“had”). So before I go further and defend the passive (under certain circumstances), let me try to clarify the definition of passive voice.

A sentence is passive voice if the grammatical subject of the sentence is the logical or semantic object, that is, the recipient of an action rather than the actor.

Maybe this doesn’t help. Let me put it more colloquially. In a passive sentence, the subject of the sentence doesn’t “do” anything; it is “done to”.

Some examples may help:

(1)

Active: The dog bites me.

Passive: I am bitten [by the dog].

(2)

Active: The vampire licked the tender flesh below her earlobe.

Passive: The tender flesh below her earlobe was licked [by the vampire].

(3)

Active: He had kissed her tenderly before he climbed onto his horse.

Passive: She had been kissed tenderly by him before he climbed onto his horse.

(4)

Active: I will eat my vegetables.

Passive: My vegetables will be eaten [by me].

In each case, the passive version reverses the active version, making the direct object be the subject, and optionally adding the former subject as the object of the preposition “by”.

The predicate in a passive sentence is some form of the verb to be followed by the past participle of the verb expressing the action. For regular verbs, the past participle ends in “ed” and has the same form as the simple past:

licked

kissed

prodded

checkmated

discombobulated

Irregular verbs, however, often have special forms for the past participle:

eaten

bitten

torn

shown

overgrown

By the way, only transitive verbs can be involved in passive sentences. A transitive verb is one that requires a direct object. (Some verbs can be used in both transitive and intransitive situations.) If there’s no possibility of a direct object, then clearly the object can’t be made into a subject.

Note that just because a sentence includes a form of the verb to be does not mean it is passive. For example, the following sentences are all active voice:

I am an erotic romance author.

I was hungry.

I had been waiting for the bus for nearly half an hour.

Notice also that the question of tense (that is, at what time the action occurred) is independent of whether a sentence is active or passive. In my first four examples, (1) is present tense, (2) is simple past, (3) is past perfect and (4) is future. In the passive version, the form of the verb to be determines the tense.

So now that we know what passive voice is (and is not!), why is it so maligned? The primary reason so many books advise against using the passive is the fact that passive sentences can reduce the impact of an action. Active sentences are shorter, more direct and more dynamic than passive ones. Using active as opposed to passive voice is akin to choosing strong, specific verbs over weak, general ones: “stumbled”, “sauntered”, or “strolled” instead of “walked”, for example.

In fact, psychological research has demonstrated that passive sentences are more difficult to understand than active sentences. This makes sense. In an active sentence, the grammar supports and provides clues to the underlying meaning. In a passive sentence, grammar and meaning conflict.

Given these results, why would you ever want to use the passive voice? There are at least three situations in which the passive is desirable or even necessary:

1. The true actor – the logical subject of the action – is unknown.

As the door slid closed, I was knocked on the head so hard that I saw stars.

Many articles have been written about the perils of the passive voice.

2. You deliberately want to focus attention on the recipient of the action, because this is your current POV character.

Henrietta had been wooed by every eligible bachelor in the county, but she despised them all.

Buck was bruised and battered by the gang’s weapons, but he refused to give up.

3. You deliberately choose an indirect mode of expression for stylistic reasons.

Professor Rogers was a man of well-established habits, delicate sensibilities and refined tastes. He was enthralled by the soaring harmonies of Mozart’s Requiem and intrigued by the challenging arguments of Sartre. Rogers was confused when students insisted on sending him email. In his world view, words should be committed to paper and vouchsafed to the Royal Mail for delivery.

In the third example, the repeated use of passive voice reinforces the presentation of Professor Rogers as a fussy, overly-intellectual character, the exact opposite of a man of action. Even though this paragraph is not in fact in the Professor’s words, it sounds like something he might have written.

In summary, there are sometimes good reasons for adopting the passive voice. As a general rule, however, active voice tends to be more readable and engaging. What is is important is to be aware of your choices in this regard. If the passive seems right for the situation, don’t be shy about using it. Recognize the passive when it pops up in your writing and make deliberate decisions based on knowledge and craft.

Controlling Time

By Lisabet Sarai

Can you control the flow of time? I’m not talking about managing your own time in order to be productive (though that would be a worthy topic for another article). I’m referring to managing the flow of time in your stories.

Authors of paranormal or speculative fiction, where time travel is a common element, might answer in the affirmative. Historical writers also need an acute appreciation of time. Those of you who write in other genres, though, might not have thought much about the question. You might be more focused on building compelling characters, producing vivid descriptions, or writing realistic dialogue. If you don’t consciously control the passage of time in your books, however, you may create problems your readers.

In most fiction, time provides the sub-structure for the story. The events that comprise the plot are associated with different temporal “locations”, strung out from the past to the present like beads on a string. A close author friend of mine uses the metaphor of a clothesline. He writes scenes as they occur to him and then “hangs” them on the line in temporal order. (See his example below. You can read about his method at the Oh Get A Grip blog).

Plot “clothesline” by C. Sanchez-Garcia

Aristotle advised dramatists that all the action in a play should occur within a single day. That approach might work for a short story, but novels usually stretch over a longer duration—anything from days to centuries. This expanded span introduces a variety of risks for the author.

The risk of confusing the reader. Your reader needs to understand when things are happening in order to make sense of the story. Thus, you need to clearly communicate the temporal “setting” of each scene (including flashbacks or scenes from the past that are described by your characters).

The risk of “losing” periods of time. If your story jumps from point A in time (e.g. Monday) to point B (e.g. Saturday of the same week), what happened during the intervening days? This might not be relevant to the story, and you don’t necessarily need to fill in the blank period in detail, but both you and your characters need to be aware that the gap exists. As a reader, I find it really irritating when a new chapter begins a month later than the previous one, without the author telling me anything about what occurred during that period. In general, as time progresses, things change. Longer time periods result in more significant alterations of people, situations, and environments. Keep this in mind as you write.

The risk of repeating periods of time. This is the flip side of (2). Make sure you don’t end up with two Saturdays in a row!

The risk of factual or celestial gaffes. Authors frequently use natural phenomena to anchor a story. Phases of the moon are a particular favorite of mine. If the moon is full during one scene, I need to actively consider what phase it will display a week later. Certainly it won’t still be full! Seasonal variations are another example. My novel Necessary Madness begins in late November, in New England, and continues through December until Christmas. I describe the weather as progressively colder and more inclement, as it usually is in Massachusetts during this period.

The risk of logical gaffes. Humans expect a logical sequence of phenomena, from cause to effect. A glitch in your fictional time line can create a situation where an effect is described before its causal event has occurred. For example, a character might mention another individual in the story, before the two have met or learned of each other’s existence. A reader might or might not notice this sort of error. In the former case, she’ll be confused. In the latter case, she’ll be critical of your skills as a story teller.

So how can you avoid these sorts of problems, especially in a longer work like a novel? One common technique is to create a time line for your story. The line should start at the earliest event you describe (even if that is in the past when your story begins) and should extend to the tale’s conclusion. As an example, here’s a time line I used as I was working on my M/M speculative fiction novel Quarantine.

Quarantine historical events timeline

Quarantine events timeline

Because this story takes place in the future, but is influenced by history, I’ve broken my time line into two parts. The first has a larger granularity (years) and shows historical events leading up to the beginning of the book, both personal to the characters (above the line) and public (below the line). I’ve included the public events because they are mentioned by the characters.

The second, more detailed time line shows the course of the story events themselves. Its units are days. The book takes about two months to unfold. As we get toward the climax, the days of the week become important because the “Freedom Crossroads Rally” event must occur on a Saturday.

The second half of the detailed time line reflects chapters I hadn’t yet written at the time I created these diagrams. I was not completely sure about how the end of the book would play out and that uncertainty shows.

I’ve used diagrams for my time line, but a spreadsheet might work as well. One problem with using graphics is that there’s no obvious way to record details (like the phase of the moon or the timing of the tides) that might be ancillary to the tale but still important from a consistency perspective. With a spread sheet, each row would represent one point in time (one triangle, in my graphical representation). Then you could define columns for date, day of the week, scenes or events related to characters, external events, phase of the moon, or whatever, expanding the definition as necessary to capture the information you need.

Quarantine has a relatively simple, linear plot, and thus can be handled by a single time line. Some books, especially those with multiple point-of-view characters, may have multiple parallel time lines. The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, by Gordon Dahlquist (one the best books I’ve read in the past decade!), features three main characters, each of whom has independent adventures. Their individual time lines merge in certain scenes, then diverge again. I don’t know if Dahlquist used time lines (if he didn’t, I’d like to know how he kept track of such an incredibly intricate tale!), but I’d imagine if one tried to do so, one would need separate time-tagged event sequences for Miss Temple, Cardinal Chang, and Doctor Svenson, braided together like the multiple channels of an ancient river.

Handling time in Quarantine was relatively simple for another reason. The book is narrated using “standard” third-person limited, past tense. I’ve written four novels at this point using first person, present tense. It’s a tricky combination but one that I like for erotica because of its immediacy. Here’s a bit from my erotic thriller Exposure narrated by exotic dancer and (it turns out) amateur sleuth Stella Xanathakeos:

It’s early, and it’s Monday, slow. He’s the only one sitting close enough for me to use my stare, and it isn’t working. He’s good-looking in a clean-cut, straight-laced sort of way. Blond crew cut, blue-eyed, muscles that show even under his expensive suit. At least it looks expensive to me.

He has not taken his eyes off me since I strutted onto the stage, but his face is without expression. It’s like he has walls behind his eyes. I can’t see into him at all. Now it’s me that’s getting frustrated and hot under the collar. I’ve already stripped down to my pasties, boots and thong. I peel one of the tassels off my nipple and dangle it in front of him. He looks only at my eyes. He’s measuring me, sizing me up for something.

I prance around on my stiletto heels. I shake my hips, do a slow, sensuous shimmy, cup my tits in my palms and offer them to him. No reaction. I take off the other tassel and attach it behind, where my butt cheeks meet, a lewd little tail. There’s a whistle from a table in the back, but Mr. Clean just continues to study me.

First person present narration complicates the control of time because you can’t allow significant gaps. It feels odd if the narrator’s voice simply disappears for a day or two, then pops in again. The events in Exposure (except for the final chapter, which is something of an epilogue) take place over the course of a single week. Every moment of Stella’s time needs to be accounted for. Furthermore, she needs to give the reader clues when the time line advances without her providing a blow-by-blow description.

Three quarters of the way through writing Exposure, I discovered that I’d lost a day. I was tracking the days of the week because the plot required it. I realized that I’d skipped from Thursday to Saturday without Friday ever happening. This necessitated some temporal repair work on my part!

Perhaps the most complicated juggling of time I’ve done as a writer is my short story “Underground”, recently published in the ERWA paranormal anthology Unearthly Delights. In this tale, less than 7000 words long, I begin in the present:

So maybe it’s not totally sane. I’ve always been fascinated by madness.

As for safe, where’s the thrill in safety?

You can’t, however, deny that it’s consensual.

Ducking into a blank alley, one of thousands in this city, I make my way to the metal door near the end. The keypad gives off a faint green luminescence. I tap in the combination and the door swings open; my pulse is already climbing. My boot heels ring hollow as I descend the industrial steel steps, and the thump of the bass rises to meet me. Excitement wells up, flooding my cunt, even before I’ve buzzed the final door and been admitted to this most particular and perverse playground.

The techno soundtrack punches me in the solar plexus. My heart stutters like I’ve been shocked by a defibrillator. Delicious weakness sweeps over me, a premonition of what’s to come.

I give the readers a glimpse of my narrator’s personality and desires, just enough (I hope), to pique their curiosity, before shifting to a flashback:

The long years before I found Underground and Z seem like some bad dream—an endless series of fetish groups and kink clubs, personal ads and bar hook-ups, as I searched everywhere for someone who could understand and satisfy my particular needs.

S&M folk like to believe they’re tolerant and accepting. They weren’t ready to tolerate me, though.

The remainder of the story flips back and forth between past and present. Each brief section set in the present advances the particular scene initiated at the start of the story. Each flashback (there are three such sections) reveals more about who the main character is and what she really wants. The tale ends in the present, as the narrator reaps the consequences of her history.

This was a pretty ambitious time line. It took me several rounds of edits to get it right, to create the correct balance between flashbacks and current events, and to make sure the action was advancing consistently in the present. In fact I didn’t fully grasp my target temporal structure at first. The crits I received on the Storytime list helped me to clarify my own goals.

I’m tempted to warn “don’t try this at home”, but in fact, you need to follow your own instincts about the time progression in your stories. If you feel that you need a complex time structure, don’t ignore that insight.

My goal in this article is simply to focus your attention on the question. Maintaining awareness of time in your work can be critical not only for helping your readers understand your tale but also for creating special emotional effects as I did in “Underground”. Sloppiness about time can make your tales annoying, confusing, even unreadable.

 

Patterns in Time: Character Lifelines and Story Structure

By Lisabet Sarai

When I’m reading or critiquing fiction, I find myself particularly sensitive to the temporal structure of the story—the flow of events through time. Effective structure provides a feeling of unity, even if the story does not follow Aristotle’s strict definitions (one action thread, one location, a time span of no more than one day). In a well-structured tale, each event links strongly to the others. Each scene contributes to the whole. Characters grow and change according to organic, believable trajectories. The plot may be intricate and complex, but the resulting impression is one of satisfying coherence.

In contrast, poorly structured fiction may include unexplained gaps, extraneous events, unsettling jumps from one time to another or one character to another, shifts of perspective that don’t tie back into the overall narrative. Another characteristic that reflects poor structure is a story that continues long after it should have ended, dawdling along when the conflicts have already been resolved and the outcomes are no longer in doubt.

The skill with which an author structures her work has a major impact on my enjoyment. Yet this is an aspect of craft not often discussed. In this post, I want to consider some of the different patterns a story may take through time, suggesting when or why you might want to adopt each one. I’ll also consider the potential pitfalls in each approach.

Let me begin by defining story structure. In my view, story structure is the ordering of events that affect characters, as they are presented in the story. This includes potential shifts between focus characters. Two stories might have the same basic plot and characters but employ very different structures. Consider, example, the recently revived fairy tale Cinderella.

Structure 1: Cinderella’s father remarries, then dies. Cinderella’s step-mother and step-sisters relegate her to the role of kitchen slave. A herald arrives at the door announcing the Prince’s ball. The evil step-family heads to the ball, leaving the ash-smeared girl crying at home. Cinderella’s fairy godmother appears to comfort the girl and provide the necessary fashions and transportation for Cinderella to attend the ball, where the Prince is smitten and waltzes with her all evening. At the stroke of midnight, as the enchantment dissolves, Cinderella flees, but leaves her glass slipper behind. The love-lorn Prince appears at Cinderella’s home, searching for the mysterious beauty by trying the slipper on each young woman in the kingdom. The shoe fits and Cinderella’s identity is revealed. She marries the Prince and they live happily ever after.

Structure 2: Cinderella scrubs the pots in the scullery. She hears the royal secretary knock on her step-mother’s front door and announce the Prince’s search for the mysterious beauty who fled from him at midnight. Cinderella remembers in wistful detail her triumph at the ball, the thrill of dancing in the Prince’s arms and the terror at having her lowly identity revealed at midnight. She listens at the kitchen door as the step-sisters fail to fit the slipper. Gathering her courage, she emerges and requests a chance to try on the shoe. Her lovely little foot slips into the crystal slipper, the Prince claims her as his bride and they live happily ever after.

Structure 3: It is the day after the ball. The Prince muses in his room, refusing to eat, remembering the gorgeous young woman who fled from him at midnight. A retainer arrives, telling him about finding the isolated crystal slipper on the road leading away from the castle. Meanwhile, Cinderella is scrubbing pots in the kitchen, sighing at the recollection of her prince, sadly sure she will never see him again. She hears his voice outside in the parlor as he arrives at her step-mother’s home with the shoe. Gathering her courage, she emerges from the kitchen and asks to try the shoe. The Prince recognizes her immediately, before she’s even made the attempt. He sweeps her into his arms for a kiss, claims her as his bride, and whisks her away to the palace where they live happily ever after.

The three examples above represent three frequently-encountered temporal patterns. Structure 1 is linear. The events are presented more or less in the order they occurred. Furthermore there is a single focus character, Cinderella.

Structure 2 is what I call a loop-back. The story begins part way through the temporal sequence of events, then via a recollection or a flashback, recounts earlier events that led up to the present, before moving on. Once again, there’s a single focus character.

Structure 3 illustrates a parallel structure, in addition to a loop back. There are two focus characters. The narrative shifts from one to the other and back. In this example, the events experienced by each character are concurrent (that is, they cover the same basic stretch in time), but parallel structures can also be used for temporally disparate events, as long as there’s a strong logical or emotional connection between the two event streams. For example, my novel Incognito uses a parallel structure in which Miranda’s sexual adventures in the present time mirror the confessions she reads in Beatrice’s Victorian-era diary.

Even given the mere outlines above, a reader gets a different feeling from each structure. The first follows the simple, traditional course of a fairy tale. Each event triggers the next in a sequence. The second, in contrast, feels more modern, and perhaps, more interesting. If one were not already familiar with this plot, this structure might generate more suspense. The third structure produces a major shift in intent. The Prince changes from a mere appendage to the plot, the medium for realizing Cinderella’s dreams, to a character in his own right. The parallel time streams, if implemented with skill, could have the reader wondering whether, in fact, the two characters’ goals and desires will converge. (If, like me, you’d recently enjoyed the film “Into the Woods”, you’d recognize that this convergence might not be inevitable!)

These three basic structures can be combined and ramified, especially in longer work. In the hands of a skillful author, temporal patterns can become very complicated indeed (consider Audrey Niffenegger’s astonishing novel, The Time-Traveler’s Wife). On the other hand, playing too fast and loose with the ordering of events can produce a narrative disaster, confusing your readers and diluting the impact of your stories.

When might you want to use each of these basic structures? The comments below are suggestions, not rules, and represent my personal observations.

Linear structures work well for shorter work, for instance stories in the 3,000 to 5,000 word range. In these cases, you usually don’t have the word count to get fancy with time. Your focus is on your characters, their crisis and its resolution. Furthermore, in this sort of work, it’s often best to take Aristotle’s advice in stride and keep all the events within a relatively short time span—an evening, a day, a week at most. Short stories where there are large temporal gaps between scenes often feel awkward to me. The breaks in the action dissipate the story’s emotional intensity. What’s happening to the characters during those lapses in time? Has the crisis been somehow suspended?

Linear structure can also be applied in novel-length work, especially when maintaining suspense is important. If you write a novel in the present tense (difficult but something I’ve attempted several times), linear (or parallel linear) structure is the only possibility, since readers are experiencing the events at the same time as the character(s).

A linear structure offers the overarching advantage of clarity. It’s also simple to construct and to implement. Most novice authors intuitively use linear patterns when they begin writing. This is the structure most often found in oral storytelling, part of our ancestral roots.

The main risk in using a linear structure is boredom on the part of the reader. To avoid this, it’s important to select and describe only the events that truly contribute to the story, and to continually build tension toward the (narrative) climax. With a linear story, it’s also critical to recognize when to end the story, as noted above. Once the main conflict has been resolved, end quickly. You do not necessarily have to tie up every single loose end.

The loop-back pattern works really well in short fiction because it immediately throws the reader into the action. The initial scene, which needs some dramatic intensity to be effective, can snag the reader’s curiosity and trigger her questions, questions which will be resolved during the loop back to explain the genesis of the situation. I use this pattern a lot in my own work. For example, my story The Last Amanuensis, recently released by Fireborn Publishing, begins as follows:

My hands no longer tremble when I pierce his papery skin. I’ve learned how much force to apply, how to tilt the hollow needle just enough to fill the tiny wound with color without blurring the line. I know what he can bear. I can read the change in his breathing that tells me he needs a break.

He’s reached that point now. I straighten from my awkward position, crooked over his bared buttocks, and set the gleaming apparatus down on the bedside table next to the flickering candles. With Preceptors on patrol twenty-four hours a day, we dare not risk the gas lamps.

“Some water, sir?”

Moving with care so as to not to smudge my work, he twists to take the glass from my gloved hand and drains the contents. “Thank you, Adele.” The weariness in his voice sets up an ache under my sternum. Seeing what it costs him, I would dissuade him from this endeavor if I could. I’ve also learned, though, that it is useless is to argue with the professor when he has set his mind on something. 

 

Hopefully, at this point, I’ll have the reader wondering. Who are these characters? What are they doing and why? Who are the Preceptors?

In this story, I use about 1000 of the 5000 words in the first scene. The next 2000 words explain the genesis of this relationship and situation, bringing the narrative up to the present (the time when the story starts). The final 2000 words move the tale forward toward its climax and resolution.

However, there are a variety of potential pitfalls in using this pattern. Balancing back story with forward action is probably the most serious problem. If the loop back takes too long or involves too much detail, the reader may lose the sense of immediacy evoked by the initial scene. One solution is to use multiple, shorter loop backs. This can work but risks confusing the reader.

Novel-length works frequently include loop backs/flashbacks to provide background on events or characters. The impact of these backward-looking sections depends on their frequency and length, but the same caveats apply. It’s important not to lose forward momentum. A novel usually has a more complex and detailed plot, so narrative trips back into the past may not have as much of a noticeable effect on structure or the corresponding impression of the readers, but there are exceptions. John Le Carré’s book A Perfect Spy, which I recently finished, flits back and forth across a period of about fifty years in the life of the main character. This could have been extremely confusing, but Le Carré made it work, gradually revealing the experiences that had brought his protagonist to his present state. 
 

Parallel structure is most effective in longer works, depending as it does on the existence of at least two focus characters or subplots. Usually (though not always), one of the event strands will be primary, while the other will provide a mirroring or contrasting perspective. Parallel structures are fairly common in romance, with alternating chapters offering the heroine’s and hero’s points of view. Books that provide contemporary plus historical narratives (like Incognito) offer another frequently encountered example.

What are the problems with writing parallel structures? Consistency can be one issue, at least in stories where two characters experience the same or related events. (Of course, a skilled author might deliberately introduce inconsistencies in order to reveal certain aspects of the characters.) Balance is another potential problem. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, parallel narrative threads do not necessarily have to have equal weight—length or thematic importance—but once the author has made a decision about the intended weight, she needs to be careful that one thread does not assume more importance than planned. In traditional romance, for instance, the heroine’s perspective tends to be more emphasized than the hero’s, even when the narrative alternates between them. If the hero’s story begins to take over, this may weaken the book.

One of my goals in writing this article is to point out how important it is to understand the temporal patterns we authors choose, not just in order achieve the effects we want, but also so we can recognize when we’re violating our own decisions. Extraneous scenes, time gaps, unmotivated shifts of focus and similar issues become easier to detect when we have some idea of the pattern we’re aiming for.

I don’t mean to suggest that story structure is always the result of a conscious decision. However, I’ve learned that when a story feels somehow wrong—awkward, flat, without a clear point—the structure is often to blame. Sometimes, playing with patterns in time, experimenting with a different structure, can dramatically improve the impact of your writing.

Wrangling Sentences

By Lisabet Sarai

I realized that I hadn’t written a craft-oriented post for the ERWA blog in a while, so I thought I’d remedy that today. My topic: making your sentences work to accomplish both your narrative and emotional goals.

Defining terms

When I teach writing classes, I begin by stating that, in English, the sentence is the basic unit of meaning. A (simple) sentence consists of a subject and a predicate. The former identifies what we are talking about, while the latter expresses what we want to say about the subject. A subject may be a noun (“spanking”), a pronoun (“she”), a simple noun phrase (“the riding crop”) or a noun phrase with modifying clauses (“the riding crop that dangled casually from her belt”) A predicate may specify an action (“heated his butt”), a relationship (“was his first Mistress”), or a state of being (“was obviously new”). Both subject and predicate are required in order to have a complete idea. The subject “spanking” may conjure a variety of theories regarding the point to be made, but we really don’t know what the author intends without the predicate.

Compound sentences combine two (or sometimes more) simple sentences using conjunctions or adverbs that specify a logical relationship between their components. English provides a wide variety of relationships including coordination (“and”), opposition (“but”, “although”), sequence (“before”, “during”, “after”), and causality (“because”, “if”). A compound sentence expresses a meta-idea that includes not only the individual concepts captured in the component simple sentences but also the relationship determined by the connector. Change the connecting words and you totally change the meaning.

Peter fantasized about spanking but he had never been to a BDSM club.

Peter fantasized about spanking because he had never been to a BDSM club.

Sentences – naive and experienced

We authors use sentences for both telling a story and for evoking specific emotional responses in our readers. When I wrote my first novel, Raw Silk, I was thinking mostly about the first goal, not the second. Certainly, I was trying to evoke various moods, but I didn’t consciously manipulate the structure of my sentences with that in mind. As a result, all my sentences tended to be fairly long and complex, regardless of what was going on in the story.

Paragraph from Chapter One:

Kate extricated herself from the car’s comfortable embrace. The house was small, almost a cottage, but had two stories, and was surrounded by lush gardens. A huge tree with gnarled, contorted limbs stood before the building, bearing drooping masses of vines and creepers. She breathed deep, savouring the sweetness of flowers she could not name. The humid air caressed the bare skin on her arms. She heard the chittering of insects, and softly, the music of flowing water. There must be a pool or fountain, she thought, smiling to herself. She noted a balcony on the second floor, overlooking the garden.

Paragraph from Chapter Four:

Somtow rocked his pelvis in time with her strokes, but otherwise remained still. He watched her as she rode him, harder now, grinding herself down on him, finding exactly the right position, the right angle, for her own satisfaction. Now he reached up and caressed her breasts gently, trapping the nipples between his first and second finger. Katherine responded by pinching his nipples, hard. His back arched, pushing his cock deeper into her.

Paragraph from Chapter Nine

The rubber felt foreign, solid and unyielding, no respite, no escape. Noi hammered into her, then pulled out slowly, so that Kate could feel each of the ridges as it caught and then released the edges of her hole. The huge dildo stretched her deliciously, but she wanted more. She pushed her hips back toward the woman fucking her, begging for deeper penetration, harder strokes.

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with these sentences, but they have a sameness, a similar rhythm and style even though they play very different roles in the story. In the sex scenes, the length and complexity of the sentences have the effect of distancing the reader from the action.

In the fifteen years since I wrote this book, I’ve learned to use shorter sentences, even fragments, in sex scenes, to evoke a sense of urgency and breathlessness.

Here’s a bit from my latest novel The Ingredients of Bliss:

The sting dwindled when he nuzzled the sensitive spot just below my ear. As I’m sure he expected, my clit twitched in response. I arched up, trying to grind my pelvis against his bum. He raised himself to a half-kneel, breaking the contact between our skin, while still holding me more or less immobilized. His cock was now fully engorged. Barely a foot from my hungry mouth, it wept pre-cum onto my chest. I whimpered and struggled against his inexorable grip. I really didn’t want to talk anymore. I just wanted him to fuck me. Again.

Notice the difference? I’ve deliberately chosen shorter sentences and more concrete nouns. The paragraph feels more immediate and intense than anything in my first novel.

The style in the passage above isn’t necessarily typical of all the prose in the book. Here’s a bit of description:

Buildings of brick, stone and stucco made the street into a shadowy canyon. Overhead there were decorative cornices and wrought iron balconies, remnants of another, more prosperous time, but at the ground level, most had roll down metal shutters, locked tight. Neon-hued graffiti decorated the blank steel panels. Fast food wrappers and crumpled newspaper stirred in the gutters. The temperature had remained balmy but fog had crept in from the harbor, bringing the smell of rotting kelp and giving halos to the scattered street lights.

As I’ve become more aware of my sentence structure, I believe that my writing has improved. I have more control over the reactions I’m trying to elicit from my readers.

Tips for more effective sentences

I called this a craft article, so I suppose I should try to distill my own strategies into a set of recommendations that might help other authors. So here goes!

Comprehensibility comes first. Before starting to play around with sentence structure in order to achieve particular effects, be sure that the literal meaning is clear and easy to grasp.

Avoid using complex noun phrases as sentence subjects since they burden the reader’s memory. Here’s a sentence from a story I recently edited for another author.

But what had been a nice little itch to scratch in private had bloomed within me and grown as uncontrollable as my hair.

This sentence is completely grammatical, but struck me as awkward and confusing because of the long subject – especially since that subject begins with a pronoun.

I suggested revising it as follows:

But the little itch I’d scratched in private had bloomed and grown as uncontrollable as my hair.

Multiple pronoun references in a single sentence that refer to different individuals can reduce clarity. Words that can act as both nouns and verbs (e.g. “present”, “market”) sometimes cause problems. Finally, cognitive research has shown that long sentences are more difficult to comprehend, regardless of their structure. I am not suggesting that authors “dumb down” their prose, but complexity must be weighed against comprehensibility.

I’m sure the average length of my sentences has declined as I’ve gained in skill, even as the variation in length has increased.

Match the pace of your prose to the pace of the narrative. I’ve already addressed this issue above. Brief, concrete, punchy sentences work well for action scenes (including many sex scenes). Longer, more intricately structured sentences are more appropriate for description and thematic explication. Also, you may want to use more complex sentences for flashbacks than for live action. Recollection does not generally have the same intensity as experience, unless the character is lost in fantasy.

Use sentence fragments with discretion. A sentence fragment is a bare subject or bare predicate, or else part of a complex sentence – a dependent clause without the corresponding independent clause that controls it. Without context, a fragment does not express a full idea, and strictly speaking, fragments are not grammatically correct. However, a partial sentence can be highly effective in the right circumstances, particularly inner dialogue.

Sympathy welled up inside me. I pushed it aside. I had to be strong. Stern. Maybe even cruel.

In their ice-blue depths I saw a flicker of something—something that both warmed me inside and turned up the volume on my arousal. Gratitude, maybe? Or complicity?

If you’re deliberately using sentence fragments, don’t let some over-zealous editor cite rigid grammar rules to red-pencil them out of existence. At the same time, be aware that overusing fragments can render your prose much harder to understand.

Avoid joining clauses with “and” unless they are logically equivalent and have strong semantic links. Compound sentences are powerful tools for expressing subtle connections between concepts. However, the “coordination” relationship, using “and”, is the weakest way to join two ideas.

Authors often use “and” when they are actually trying to convey temporal sequence:

She landed another stinging slap on my bare ass and I cried out in agony.

This sentence might be more effective if the clauses were split apart:

She landed another stinging slap on my bare ass. I cried out in agony.

Alternatively, you can make the temporal relationship more explicit:

When she landed another stinging slap on my bare ass, I cried out in agony.

Reserve “and” for cases where there’s a strong connection between concepts expressed in the joined clauses:

He’s my beloved Master and I’m his devoted slave.

Vary your sentence structure and length within a paragraph. A paragraph in which every sentence has a similar structure quickly becomes boring. Erotic books are full of passages like the following:

Now he sipped at my mouth rather than swallowing me whole. He feathered his tongue over my lips, coaxing me to let him enter. He breathed into me, warm and sweet, gentle as drifting clouds on a spring day. He held me close, so close I could feel the heartbeat under his sweat-damp shirt, and bathed me in his devotion.

Every sentence in this brief paragraph has “he” as the subject. I revised the passage as follows:

Now he sipped at my mouth rather than swallowing me whole. His tongue feathered over my lips, coaxing me to let him enter. He breathed into me, warm and sweet, gentle as drifting clouds on a spring day. Holding me close, so close I could feel the heartbeat under his sweat-damp shirt, he bathed me in his devotion.

Now the sentences have a more varied structure. One technique for achieving this variety is to use modifying phrases (like “holding me close”) to introduce some of the sentences. Another technique I’ve employed here is to use what some editors would label as an “Independent Body Part” (IBP), using “his tongue” rather than “he” as the subject in the second sentence. Like any other construction, IBPs can be over-used, but in fact they are an example of a type of figurative language called synecdoche , which involves using a part of something to represent the whole, or vice versa.
(Check out my blog post here for more about IBP.)

An exercise in wrangling sentences. Just for fun, I decided to take one of the passages from Raw Silk I quoted at the start of this post, and revise it according to some of the recommendations above. Here’s the result:

The rubber felt foreign, solid and unyielding. No respite. No escape. Noi hammered into her, again and again. With each invasion, the ridges on the obscene toy caught then released the edges of Kate’s hole. The huge dildo stretched her to the limit, but Kate wanted more. Shameless, she arched back toward the woman fucking her, begging for what she craved. Deeper penetration. Harder strokes.

This still isn’t great literature, but are the sentences more effective? Is the tone more urgent, more involving? I’d argue that it is.

Summary

The structure of your sentences impacts the effectiveness of your prose. Work to create sentences that are easy to understand, that match the pace and tone of the narrative, and that use devices like fragments and figurative language to add variety and spice. Be deliberate in your choices. You have more control than you may have realized.

Composing A Great Hook

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

According to the late Elmore Leonard, never open a book with the weather. You want to hook a reader from the onset, not bore him or her with talk of rain. Then again, this famous hook sets the scene of a windswept London vividly in the imagination.

A hook is a literary technique in which the writer “hooks” the reader’s attention in the first sentence or paragraph so that he or she will keep on reading. When I first came to Facebook, writer Tom Piccirilli had an exercise where he asked his fellow writers to post their opening paragraphs or the opening line to their books. It was a wonderful exercise in learning how to write a great hook. When you see lots of other examples, you are more inspired to get right to the point and write something very catchy so you get most of the attention (and Facebook ‘likes’.). The same should apply to writing a hook for your books and short stories. You need to grab readers within those first few words or you will never hold them. Not only must you have an opening hook for your story, you must also have a closing hook for each chapter so that the reader is eager to continue reading, and you must have a hook for the opening of each chapter. Grabbing readers at the onset isn’t enough. You must keep their attention throughout your story. Hooks help to make that possible.

Here are some classic examples of fine literary hooks:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters. [Jane Austen, “Pride and Prejudice”]

Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen. [D. H. Lawrence, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”]

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. [J. D. Salinger, “The Catcher In The Rye”]And my favorite literary hook, from Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting Of Hill House”:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone…

Sometimes a paragraph is too much. You have to grab ’em in the opening line. Don’t waste a single word. Here are some examples of good opening lines in romance novels.

“By dying now his father had won again. That old bastard.” [Ruth Cardello, “Maid For The Billionaire”]

“Hello, my name is Riley, and I am addicted to sexy lingerie.” [Lexy Ryan, “Text Appeal”]

“Where were her panties?” [Christine Claire MacKenzie, “A Stormy Spring”]

“The trouble with dead people today was they had no sense of decorum.” [Vicky Lobel, “Keys To The Coven”]

A good hook makes the reader want to know more. What is it about Hill House that frightens one so? Who or what haunts it? Riley is addicted to sexy lingerie. Well, hello there. 🙂 Humor always provides a good opening, as is evidence with several of the hooks named above.

Of course, the “dark and stormy night” quote was written by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton in “Paul Clifford”. His opening inspired the Bulwer-Lytton awards, which are given for the best “worst” opening paragraphs to fictitious novels. You submit entries you’ve created yourelf. You
have two sentences to work with. They are so mind-blowingly bad you’ll laugh your head off the whole time you read them. Here is the 2013 winner in the category of romance:

On their first date he’d asked how much she thought Edgar Allan Poe’s toe nails would sell for on eBay, and on their second he paid for subway fair with nickels he fished out of a fountain, but he was otherwise charming and she thought that they could have a perfectly tolerable life together. — Jessica Sashihara, Martinsville, NJ

Groan!

Just for posterity’s sake, here are Elmore Leonard’s ten rules for writing:

Never open a book with the weather.

Avoid prologues.

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”

Keep your exclamation points under control!

Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Same for places and things: Leave out the parts readers tend to skip.

Of course, break these rules as you see fit. After all, rules are meant to be broken. 😉

Too Sexy or not to Sexy

By: Craig J. Sorensen

I got the edits for a story soon to be published from one of
my favorite editors.  As expected, her
tweaks and tunes made sense, and readied this story for prime time.  She made some warm comments about specific
things, which I always appreciate.  A
busy editor does not have lots of time on her hands, and when she takes time to
make such a comment, that is a great compliment indeed.

But down deeper in the story, one comment:  “Nooooo! Not sexy!”

The line in question? 
“… fingers scattered like deformed spiders.”

Which begs the question, is there an idealized role of
sexuality in an erotic story?  I know,
this is a slippery slope, and there are as many opinions as there are readers
and writers of erotica.

I often toy with strange images.  To some extent, I do this to create tension,
and to some extent, I do this to provide depth to the sexual imagery.  But, in doing this, I risk taking the reader
out of the erotic mindset that stories in the genre are usually expected to do.

Yes, some of the things I write come from strange places.  I’ve had a few similar edits at other times,
and I understand where the editors are coming from.  When a story goes into a collection, it needs
to fit the theme and the vision of the editor. 
 I’m not bothered by spiders, but
I do know that this is a serious squick for some.  With that in mind, I see her point.  The descriptive was not absolutely essential
to the story, but I liked it because it gave a sense of contrast, and
illustrated the protag’s perspective on the character he was thinking about.  In the end, I had no problem with the removal
of this “not sexy” descriptive.

I love writing erotica because it challenges social taboos,
just by being explicit, but within the genre, I like to challenge as well.  Taking chances is what I do.  Editors will probably continue to trap and
consume my odd images that go too far in their web.

I guess it’s all in the game.  Works for me.

Engaging the Senses

By Lisabet Sarai

How do you make your stories come alive
for readers? One important factor is your ability to engage their
senses. When you give readers some idea of how your fictional world
smells, sounds, tastes, and feels, their vicarious experience becomes
more vivid and compelling. (I left the sense of vision off the list
above because most authors already describe how things look.) In
erotica and erotic romance, of course, sensory details become even
more critical, because sex is such an intensely physical activity and
because arousal depends so much on non-visual stimuli such as touch
and smell.

Personally, I find it quite difficult
to come up with effective sensory descriptions. All too often, I sit
there at my computer, a scene playing out in my mind, knowing how it
would feel, smell and taste, but finding myself at a loss as to how
to convey those impressions in language.

The fact is, words can never adequately
capture the nuances of sensory perception. Actually, all you can hope
to do is trigger the recollection of sensation on the part of your
reader. Your words must act as cues that evoke a kind of recognition.
Ah, yes, you want your reader to think, I know how my nipples feel
when I’m turned on – like I’ll die if someone doesn’t touch me. I
remember how my husband smells when we’ve been working out in the
yard all day and he hasn’t showered. I can call up the slightly
bitter taste of semen, the salt-and-iron flavor of blood. I know the
crinkly sound a condom packaging opening and the gasp of lube
spurting into a palm.
Actually, of course, conscious thought isn’t
what’s going on. Descriptions evoke emotion via recognition or
imagination.

Starting this post (without really
knowing where I was going) led me to consider what strategies we authors have
at our disposal to work this little trick. It seems to me that there
are three basic methods for engaging the senses: adjectives,
metaphors, and mirroring.

Adjectives, of course, exist to
describe. The trouble is, the most obvious adjectives are frequently
overused. Again and again, I find myself describing skin as “smooth”,
voices as “low”,”rich” and “melodious”,
the scent of arousal as “musky”, the taste of muscular
flesh as “salty”. Bring out the thesaurus, I can hear you
say, and I do. However, it’s not necessarily a better solution to use
some other term that is less frequent in the language (and thus more
difficult to understand) or perhaps not exactly right for the
sensation I’m trying to convey.

Let’s try “smooth”, as an
example. When I dig out my trusty Roget, I find three inches of
entries in the index under “smooth”. I guess
“smooth-textured” is the closest to my meaning when I’m
writing (for example) about the feel of a man’s erect organ in one’s
hand or mouth. I flip to entry 287.9 (287 as a whole is “smoothness”)
and find the following:

sleek, slick, glossy, shiny,
gleaming; silky, silken, satiny, velvety; polished, burnished,
furbished; buffed, rubbed, finished; varnished, lacquered,
shellacked, glazed; glassy.

Aside from silky, silken, satiny,
and velvety, which
are metaphoric, which of the above adjectives would be a better
description for my hero’s penis than “smooth”? It might be
“slick”, but only if I’ve already dispensed the lube (or I
have a ménage
going on). “Sleek” seems to me to have a different meaning,
and also to be a strange description for part of a man (though you
might talk about sleek hair). “Gleaming”, “shiny”
and so on refer to the sense of sight, not touch. I would imagine
that my hypothetical penis would be “rubbed”,
but not in the sense mean here! I rather like the notion of a
“laquered” penis, but that would have to be a sex toy, not
the real thing!

So in fact, my
hackneyed adjective “smooth” may be the best choice, at
least among the options here. Sigh. (I’d be interested in hearing
other suggestions.)

Metaphors work by
explicitly stating or implying a comparison between the sensation
being described and some other well-known or prototypical sensory
experience. (Actually, an explicit comparison is called a simile, but
the effect is the same.) “Silky”, “satiny” and
“velvety” are all metaphorical when used to describe skin.
They refer to three different textures, associated with different
types of fabric. I’ve used all three of them – a lot. In general, I
rely on metaphor for the bulk of my sensory descriptions. Excitement
is likened to electricity or fire. Pleasure is described as melting
or boiling, compared to slow-pouring honey or breath-stealing race
cars.

Metaphors offer a
far wider variety of options for sensory description. First, one can
draw on the full range of natural and artificial phenomena as
potential sources of metaphor. Second, we already understand and
describe our experiences in metaphorical terms. We talk about
“burning” pain, a “heavy” heart, “biting”
sarcasm or a “bitter” argument. Strictly speaking, these
are all metaphors.

But metaphor can be overdone, too. I
know, because this is one of my weaknesses. Over-reliance on metaphor
to describe physical sensations can end up distancing the reader from
your character, rather than bringing her closer. This is particularly
true if the metaphor is “strained” (a metaphor in itself) –
if basis of the implied comparison is not immediately obvious or
possibly inappropriate. Overuse of metaphor can also make writing
sound overly precious and “literary”.

Mirroring is the third alternative for
engaging the senses. Don’t go looking up this strategy in your
writing text books; I just came up with this name, though I’m sure
many of you use this technique, consciously or unconsciously. What do
I mean by mirroring? Instead of describing the sensations themselves,
you describe the character’s thoughts and/or reactions to those
sensations.

Here’s a short excerpt from my BDSM erotic romance novella The Understudy. It uses all three techniques, but
relies quite heavily on mirroring. I’ve highlighted in red the
sentences where I’m using the character’s reactions or thoughts to
imply sensation.

****

Geoffrey positioned himself between
my splayed thighs. “Remember, Sarah,” he said. “Be still.”
Then he rammed his cock all the way into my cunt in one fierce
stroke.

The force
drove the breath from my lungs. The fullness made me suck the air
back in. If I hadn’t been so wet, he would have torn me apart, but
as it was my flesh parted for him as though sliced open.

My pussy
clenched reflexively around his invading bulk, but otherwise I
managed to avoid moving. His eyes, locked with mine, told me he
approved. His hardness pressed against my engorged clit. A
climax loomed, then faded away as he kept me there, motionless,
pinned to the bed.

He pulled mostly out. My hungry
cunt fluttered, empty for an instant. He drove back into me, harder
than before. I strained against the bars,
struggling not to jerk and writhe as his cock plunged in and
out of my cunt like a pile-driver.

God, it felt good! His roughness
somehow heightened the pleasure. I was his, to
use and abuse. His fuck toy, just as he had said. At that moment, that was
all I wanted to be.

****

I
am not holding my own writing up as a model here. I’m merely trying
to illustrate what I mean by “mirroring”. There’s very little direct
description of sensation in this passage but I hope that it evokes
the intensity of this experience for my heroine.

I
don’t know if this analysis is any help. It’s still agony to come up
with vivid, original sensory descriptions. I remember recently, for
instance, I was trying to describe the smell of freshly brewed
coffee. How would you convey that unique sensation? You recognize it
in an instant, but what are the characteristics of the smell?

Warm.
Rich. Dark. Earthy. Sweet? Stimulating. Mouth-watering (that’s
mirroring, really). Complex. Chocolatey (a metaphor). Roasted (but
can you really smell that)?

I’m
getting nowhere here. Maybe you’d like to give it a try. Maybe you’ll
be more successful that I am. And I’d love to know what techniques
you use to engage your readers’ senses!

All About Pleasure: What You Need to Succeed

Talent.  Luck. 
Hard work.  If you have all three,
you will definitely be published.  With
only two, you have a good chance of seeing your work in print.  With just one, your chances fall
considerably, although it’s still possible, especially if you’re blessed with
luck. I’ve forgotten exactly where I read this advice when I was a novice
writer, but it’s stayed with me for over a decade (my apologies to the veteran
who wrote this—I hope the sharing of your wisdom will partially make up
for the lack of attribution!)

Interestingly enough hard work is the only one of these elements within an individual writer’s control.  Talent is something you are born with and
much harder to determine in yourself than another, so an aspiring writer must
soldier on without sure knowledge she has It to complete the magic three.  While it could be argued that preparation
paves the way for luck, by its very definition, luck is something we can’t
really order on demand.  But, and perhaps
I’m being romantic, in almost every case you can become a better writer by
writing–a lot, day after day, year after year—whether or not the muse is with
you or money and fame reward you.  Much
like a musician, you will improve if you practice. 

Yet hard work is the
element that is also glossed over in the popular portrait of the Real
Writer, who spends her days by her swimming pool giving interviews to the press
about her lastest critically-acclaimed bestseller.  Naturally, since celebrity is the modern
manifestation of aristocracy, such a being doesn’t sweat or get dirt under her fingernails.

I lay part of the blame for
this misconception on the cinematic montage, the classic way to show major
growth and progress in the movies, which, let’s face it, reach a far greater
audience than books.  The writer,
frustrated, yanks a piece of paper from his typewriter and tosses it in
trash—or in a more modern incarnation frowns at his laptop and deletes a huge
block of text.  In the next ten-second
scene, he repeats the procedure (perhaps downing a blender full of raw eggs for strength).  On the
third pass, he smiles at his work, and in the fourth, he’s typing merrily.  In the next instant, he’s shaking hands with
a prominent editor and being taken off to lunch, concluding with a book signing
with a mob of adoring fans.

Intellectually we know
this is supposed to represent a year’s worth of effort, or more practically ten, but
emotionally, I wonder if we don’t all think that writing a bestselling book takes
all of two minutes.  That’s how it
happens on the screen after all.  And
while we can all agree this is a convenient fiction and shouldn’t be taken
seriously, I believe these fantasies can have an unfortunate influence on our
subconscious.  If the words, money and
fame don’t come easy, then we don’t have It. 
We aren’t Real Writers.

In grappling with my own
relationship to the hard work of writing—beginning with the fact I only had the
courage to devote the necessary focus and effort to writing at the
less-than-precociously-talented age of thirty-five—I’ve come to realize that I
don’t want to waste my time reading something that is not the result of hard
work.  Perhaps the actual writing of the
story took but a day (which has happened for me only once in a hundred stories I’ve written),
but the preparation, the gestation of ideas, the apprenticeship took years of
focus and dedication.

That’s why I so
appreciate stories of the writing life that celebrate the hard work, rare as
they are.  That’s why I’ll freely admit I
spent fourteen fallow years between minoring in creative writing in college and
sending out my first story, took five years to write my first novel and
five-and-counting to write the second. 
It’s not glamorous.  It’s not the
most efficient way to “achieve” fame or money. 
But it is deeply satisfying to see a long-term dream come to fruition.  

I still agree that
talent, luck and hard work do play a role in the mysterious equation that leads
to publication.  Yet for me, true success
requires more—respect for your ideas, your reader’s time, and the process of
storytelling itself.  That’s all you need to be a Real Writer, swimming pool not required.

Donna George Storey has 150 publications to her credit, most
recently a collection of short stories, Mammoth Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her work at http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor

Intimacy with Strangers

By Lisabet Sarai

This post is not about one night stands. I might explore that topic some other time: the thrill of the unknown, the intoxication with the unfamiliar, the tantalizing possibility that a random encounter might lead to a world-altering epiphany. Today, however, I’m actually talking about writing.

I publish both long and short erotica and erotic romance, in ebook and in print. I have a respectable back list for someone who doesn’t write full time. However, some of my best work doesn’t show up in the publishing history on my website, namely, the erotic tales I write to spec for Custom Erotica Source.

CES offers an unusual service. For a fee, and in complete privacy, CES provides a professionally written realization of a customer’s erotic fantasy scenario. Via an online questionnaire, the customer supplies all the details: the names, genders, ages, orientations, appearance and personalities of the characters; their relationships; the plot; particular erotic stimuli to emphasize; the type of language desired (from suggestive to filthy); and so on. Then the author (in this case, yours truly) takes this specification and spins it into a story from 1500 to 5000 words long (depending on what the customer orders).

At this point, some of my author colleagues may be shaking their heads. How can I prostitute myself in this way? How can I betray my art? Why would I surrender my creative vision and allow someone else to dictate the content and style of my work?

Well, of course the money is nice. But I do it partly because writing someone else’s erotic dreams is both a fascinating and an educational experience.

When I write something in response to a call for submissions, I have a generic audience in mind. I probably understand the type of tales a particular editor prefers. I know that Total-E-Bound’s readers are looking for something different than people who buy books from Cleis, or Xcite, or Republica Press. Furthermore, the anthology theme or the focus of the CFS provides some guidance as to content and tone. Within those broad boundaries, though, I’m free to follow my imagination in any direction it leads. I know I can intrigue and arouse at least some subset of the community of readers; I really can’t hope for more.

When I write for CES, on the other hand, I have an audience of one. I know exactly what turns that audience on – because the customer has shared his or her secret desires. It’s my job to put flesh on the bones of the story specification, to make my customer’s lusts concrete and then satisfy them.

To succeed in this task, I have to somehow sync my own erotic imagination with his. I can’t write an arousing story unless I see the characters and the situation through my customer’s eyes. Somehow, I have to intuit the customer’s reactions to the stimuli described in the spec and then coax myself into the same psychological state.

That’s where the intimacy arises. I don’t have any direct communication with the customer (although I am allowed to ask questions, via the management, if I see issues in the spec). Nevertheless, he (almost all my assignments have been writing for men) and I are connected, by his act of sharing his lewd dreams and my willingness to assume them as my own.

Some fantasies I’ve received as assignments don’t appeal to me personally at all. (I’m free to refuse assignments that I might find repugnant, of course. So far that hasn’t happened.) Still, I’ve managed to turn them into tales that pleased my unknown reader. This requires a kind of suspension of my own sexual identity in order to connect with his. By the time I’m finished, I’m usually turned on by the tale, regardless of my initial reaction. If I’m not, I know I haven’t fulfilled my part of the bargain.

Executing a CES assignment requires a possibly surprising degree of craft. I must pace the story in order to include all details from the spec while still keeping it within the word limit. I have to guard against adding erotic elements that push my own buttons, but might not have the same effect on my audience. At the same time, I need to add sensual details, plausible transitions and especially, emotional authenticity. That’s my added value, as a professional author. If just anyone could write a compelling, intense sexual fantasy, I’d be out of a job.

What really makes it work for me, though, is getting inside my customer’s head. Watching one of these stories unfold is a weird feeling, but exciting, too. It’s almost as though someone were whispering naughty ideas in my ear. I may have never considered these notions before, but when I wrap my mind around them, I begin to see the appeal.

It has occurred to me that my submissive tendencies account for some of my success in writing custom fantasies. My master once called me “suggestible”, and I suspect that’s an appropriate evaluation of my personality. The fact that I’m bisexual and exceptionally broad-minded about sex probably helps, too.

My one regret about these CES stories is that nobody else will ever read them. They belong to the customers who paid for them, not to me. I can’t post them on my website. I can’t even talk about the specific fantasy scenarios involved; that would be a breach of confidentiality. They’re eternal secrets, between my customer and me.

The last assignment I handled, though, involved an outrageous, kinky, gender-bending scenario that turned me on from the moment I opened the specification file. My personal sex life became significantly more interesting while I was working on the tale, because of the fantasies it inspired. I had no problem identifying with my audience in this case. And yet writing that story was possibly more difficult than my previous assignments, because I had to stop my own imagination from hijacking the customer’s vision.

I view my tales for CES as a sort of writing exercise. They require a level of control far beyond what’s needed for a free form story written to satisfy a vague theme. I believe that they’ve helped me hone my skills as an author of erotica.

The real payoff, though, is emotional – the heady sense of power that comes from bringing my customer’s dirtiest dreams to life. At the same time, it’s a sort of ecstatic surrender, a willingness to sink into my customer’s desires.

I will never know who my readers are, and they’ll never really know me. For a short while, though, we’re as close as lovers.

Hot Chilli Erotica

Hot Chilli Erotica

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